AUSTIN, Texas – Texas has become the latest Republican-dominated state to advance sweeping new limits on voting, despite no evidence of any problems with last year’s vote and a coalition of state and federal officials calling the 2020 presidential election the most secure in history.
The GOP-led restrictions cleared the Texas House on Friday, starting with the a key vote at 3 a.m. It followed hours of debate that started the day before, and lawmakers are now likely to begin negotiating a final version of the legislation that will need approval before heading to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who signaled an eagerness to sign it.
“One step closer to my desk & making it TX law,” he tweeted Friday.
From Florida to Georgia, Iowa and now Texas, Republican lawmakers have used unsubstantiated claims by former President Donald Trump and his allies to justify new voting restrictions. They argue the new limits, which largely target mail voting, are needed to boost public confidence and improve security. In some cases, the rules also create onerous requirements and penalties for local election officials.
In Texas, Democrats have virtually no path to stop the bill in the GOP-controlled Legislature, but they warned of legal fights ahead.
“You have your vote, you have your majority. But guess what? I look forward to seeing you in federal court," said Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer before a final procedural vote Friday afternoon that sent the bill back to the Senate. He added that “history is on our side."
The vote in Texas came a day after Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis signed a wide-ranging list of new voting restrictions into law. New voting limits have also been signed into law in Georgia and Iowa. Elsewhere, Republicans in Ohio and Michigan are also pressing ahead with overhauls of various election procedures.
“We are seeing the strong effect of President Trump’s big lie. We are seeing the Republican Party go all-in on supporting him and his lies," said Sylvia Albert, voting and elections director for Common Cause, which advocates for expanded voter access. “We are seeing them use this opportunity to create deliberate barriers to voting for Black and brown voters. It’s un-American."
House Democrats had dug in for a long fight starting Thursday, then struck an agreement with Republicans that significantly watered down some of what advocates called the most problematic aspects of the bill, which passed 81-64. The session ends May 31.
The amendments lowered initially proposed enhanced criminal penalties, allowed poll watchers to be removed if they breach the peace and clarified that election judges and volunteers wouldn’t be held liable for honest mistakes. Additionally, they instructed the state to develop an online format for tracking early ballots and to send voter registration applications to high schools.
Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain, who authored the House version of the voting bill, said some of the changes were in response to recommendations made by disability rights groups and the NAACP.
“We don’t need to wait for bad things to happen to protect the security of the election,” Cain said. “I don’t believe that this is voter suppression; I believe it is voter enhancement.”
Other restrictions in Cain’s bill would outlaw county officials from sending mail-ballot request forms to all registered voters, efforts voting officials in Harris County — where Cain is from — put in place last year to expand ballot access when in-person gatherings were more hazardous because of the coronavirus pandemic. Harris County, which includes Houston, is a Democratic stronghold where 44% of the nearly 5 million residents are Latino and 20% are Black.
Voting rights groups say poor and minority voters will bear the brunt of GOP restrictions, and that Republicans are counting on the privilege of their voters to overcome hurdles. Some Republicans across the country have expressed concern the new rules could end up hurting GOP voters as well. Republican voters, particularly seniors, have long embraced mail voting.
“What’s even more perplexing is the proposed legislation attacks voting practices that Republicans have relied on for decades to turn out voters,” Texas state Rep. Lyle Larson, a Republican, wrote in an opinion column this week.
On Tuesday, more than 50 companies and business organizations, including some in Texas, released an open letter expressing opposition to “any changes” that would make it harder to vote in that state.
Texas Republicans have angrily rejected those accusations. They say the measures merely would rein in powers that county leaders never had in the first place.
Acacia Coronado is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta and Paul J. Weber in Austin contributed to this report.